Given all the factual fudging and historical inaccuracies in most modern movies that are supposedly based on true stories, the all-out fictionalization of "The Emperor's New Clothes" can certainly be forgiven perhaps encouraged.
This charming little slice of whimsy clearly touts itself as a "what-if" tale instead of purporting to be something loftier.
And you have to cut some slack for any film smart enough to provide a showcase for Ian Holm, one of most underrated character actors out there. In fact, his impressive performance(s) here in not one but two distinctly different roles lends credibility and weight to this slight but entertaining comedy.
"The Emperor's New Clothes" bears absolutely no resemblance to Hans Christian Andersen's tale of the same name. This film is based on the novel "The Death of Napoleon" by Simon Leys, which speculates that the deposed French emperor (Holm) escaped his exile on the island of St. Helena
and, thanks to a clever ruse, switched places with Eugene Lenormand (Holm again), a deck hand.
Eugene clearly relishes the opportunity to pretend he's someone more important. But Napoleon is having a harder time pretending to be Eugene, trying to keep a low profile as he wends his way from Belgium to Paris, searching for the right opportunity to reveal his true identity.
Eventually, Napoleon winds up in employ of the widow Pumpkin (Iben Hjejle, from "High Fidelity"), who is running a failing produce business. But as he begins to enjoy his freedom again, Napoleon is torn between his growing affections for the woman and his desire to return to running the country.
Admittedly, there are quite a few problems with the tone of the film, which turns a bit too serious in its final third. And unfortunately, director Alan Taylor (a veteran of television, as well as the maker of the indie crime comedy "Palookaville") gives short shrift to the promising subplot involving the Napoleon impostor.
However, Holm manages to hold the whole thing together, while convincingly shifting gears between the two characters. Also, despite a huge age difference between Hjelje and Holm (he is 40 years her senior), Hjelje really sells their burgeoning romance.
"The Emperor's New Clothes" is rated PG for scattered use of profanity, some vulgar humor (mostly flatulence) and a brief scene of violence (a beating). Running time: 107 minutes.